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HELLER: Marshall plan was reign of error

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So you think Dan Snyder is the lousiest owner in Washington Redskins history? Forget it, despite the franchise's 86-106 record over 12 seasons under his highfalutin' hand.

Franchise founder George Preston Marshall was much worse, at least after the Redskins won five Eastern titles and two NFL championships during their first nine seasons (1937 to 1945) in the nation's capital.

Marshall, whose blustering and imperious style made him the (im)perfect role model for Danny Boy, fired coaches the way some men changed suits, ties and fedoras back then.

After highly successful Ray Flaherty joined the Navy following the championship 1942 season, Georgie Boy employed nine coaches over the next 21 years before becoming incapacitated by a stroke. Washington Post columnist Bob Addie once wrote that "a guy holding a stick of dynamite over a blazing fire would have more chance of survival than a Redskins coach."

Marshall also was a first-class bigot who refused to sign black players because the Redskins, then the league's southernmost entry, had huge radio and TV networks throughout Dixie. Nor was he apologetic. In one memorable burst of bombast, he said, "We'll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites."

The club remained all-white as late as 1961, 15 years after the Los Angeles Rams first integrated the NFL. Marshall relented only after Interior Secretary Stewart Udall told him the Redskins could not play in federally funded D.C. (later RFK) Stadium if their racial policies continued.

Largely because of the coaching changes and lack of integrated rosters, the Redskins went 25 mostly dreary seasons between playoff appearances before George Allen restored them to respectability in the early '70s. By then, Marshall was in his grave, and famed criminal lawyer Edward Bennett Williams was running the club.

Marshall's judgment on coaches was suspect, to say the least. In 1949, he impetuously gave the job to a former Naval Academy coach named John "Billick" Whelchel who had no NFL experience and lasted seven games. Five years later, he fired Curly Lambeau, a renowned NFL pioneer who had won six championships with the Packers, after the Redskins lost their first exhibition game.

It happened in a hotel lobby in Sacramento, Calif., where the Redskins had gone the morning after being embarrassed by the Rams 27-7 before 79,813 eyewitnesses in the annual L.A. Times charity game. Marshall erupted when he saw several players carrying beer, a practice he hated and Lambeau allowed.

Lambeau was about as even-tempered as Marshall, and pretty soon their disagreement escalated into yelling. When push came to shove moments later, Lambeau's tenure with the Redskins was over after two seasons plus one practice game.

Assistant coach Joe Kuharich inherited the job and somehow held it for five seasons, making him football's equivalent of Connie Mack. True, Mack managed the Philadelphia Athletics for 50 years, 10 times as long as Kuharich lasted with the Redskins, but five years of Marshall peering over his shoulder must have seemed like a half-century. Eventually, he quit to coach at Notre Dame, his alma mater, in what must have been one of the all-time sporting no-brainers.

In addition to Marshall's other flaws, he was a lousy judge of talent. After Kuharich took over, the 1954 Redskins absorbed two more exhibition clobberings. Upon which Marshall described them as "the greatest Redskins team since 1942."

Not quite. The '54 Redskins went 3-9, allowing a whopping 432 points in 12 games and losing by such margins as 59, 34, 30 (twice) and 28 points,

Marshall actually contributed some good ideas to pro football's growth, most notably the establishment in 1933 of a championship game between divisional winners. And he deserves our everlasting gratitude for moving the Redskins from Boston to D.C. in 1937.

Ultimately, however, George Preston Marshall led his Redskins along the road to abject failure. We don't know if Dan Snyder will do the same over a quarter-century, but he's off to a good start at being bad.

• For more of the author's columns, go to dickheller.wordpress.com.

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